An expert birder and naturalist, Gabriel Willow leads walks and excursions all over the world, yet he has an easygoing and accessible way of encouraging new birders without overwhelming them with information. His walks are a regular feature of each season at Wave Hill.
This past weekend was a Spring Wings celebration at Wave Hill, where we welcomed the first migrants of the season. The earliest spring migrant birds, such as red-winged blackbirds and American woodcocks, tend to show up in late March, and more species trickle in week by week in April, until the floodgates really open in early May. (So make sure to join us for the next Wave Hill walks on May 10, which is also Mother’s Day!)
Between the walks on Saturday and Sunday, we spotted 42 species, nearly half of the 88 species that have been reported from Wave Hill via Cornell’s online eBird database. Not bad for this early in the season!
On Saturday, I was joined by fellow naturalist Paul Keim, and we had over a dozen participants for the earlier bird walk, and nearly 40 for the afternoon family walk. On Sunday, I had about 25 people on the morning bird walk, and a cozy foursome for the family walk.
Both days were sunny and beautiful; Sunday even felt hot and I got my first sunburn of the season (oops)… hadn’t had enough exposed skin for that to happen in a while.
On Saturday, we had a couple of exciting sightings: immediately upon starting the morning bird walk, a pair of adult bald eagles soared overhead, flying northward. NYC is now home to the first-ever recorded nesting pair of these majestic raptors, on Staten Island, but these two were probably headed up to Croton or beyond, or they might be the pair who have taken up residence in Meadowlands, NJ, which isn’t far—at least as the eagle flies.
Towards the end of the walk, we spotted another large and uncommon species: the common raven, which isn’t so common around these parts. There are perhaps three or four pairs nesting around NYC, including a pair on the GW Bridge, which this bird was presumably one of. Ravens are larger cousins of crows, made famous by former Bronx resident Edgar Allen Poe. Poe, incidentally, probably never saw a raven in his lifetime as they had been extirpated from the northeast in his time. Once considered menacing and a danger to livestock, they were often shot on sight, but today, with protection from persecution, they are expanding their range, even in dense urban areas such as ours.The raven soared low overhead, showing its huge size and distinctive wedge-shaped tail, before landing in a tree on the grounds. It rested briefly before flying off again.
On Sunday, we had a couple of noteworthy migratory flyovers as well: an osprey, and a pair of huge great blue herons crossing the Hudson. We spotted a couple of less common migratory sparrow species as well, both named for their preferred habitats: a field sparrow and a swamp sparrow. There are neither true fields nor swamps at Wave Hill, so they made do with a lawn and some damp brush, respectively.
On a sadder note, on Sunday’s walk we found a dead, tailless mockingbird. It was most likely killed by a feral cat. Often when birds are attacked and scared, they lose their tail feathers in an attempt to escape their predator. Feral or outdoor cats will kill birds and other small prey animals, even if they aren’t hungry. That is probably why the mockingbird was left uneaten, which wouldn’t be the case if a hawk or other wild predator had caught it. It serves as a good reminder to always keep your cats indoors! Luckily, the northern mockingbird is a common species, and seemingly not in any danger of decline, even with the abundance of cats and other predators.
On both walks, we noted many sure signs of spring, including a female robin building her nest from mud, grass and some string that she found lying around. A house finch has built a nest in a cedar tree right by the Perkins Visitor Center, and appeared to be sitting on eggs, while her mate perched and sang nearby. We also spotted the first commonly seen butterfly of the season, the Mourning Cloak butterfly (so named for its funereal dark brown coloration). My thanks, by the way, to Jim Wright, who joined us on the walk, for providing this handsome photo of one we saw on Sunday. They are one of the few butterflies to survive and hibernate for the winter, and thus get a jump on the season. Other species hatch from eggs, grow as caterpillars, and then metamorphose into butterflies later in the spring.
All in all, a fascinating and exciting series of walks! I look forward to next month, when migration will be in full swing and there will be a songbird seemingly on every branch!